A Matter of Honor

They think I don’t hear them, but I do. Or at least I hear the hum of their talk with words bobbing up every now and then.

It certainly bests the sound of breathing, the crackle of my neck turning left and right on the cot, or the heartbeat that longs to feel hers, just to make some poetry that probably doesn’t rhyme anymore.

But out in the hallway, I’m pretty sure the guards are talking about me. I hear “bastard.” And maybe that was a “poor,” which I’d appreciate if this wasn’t the eve of the dawn we’ve been waiting for. Or dreading.

There! I’m pretty sure that was a “governor,” but it just as well could have been a “southerner,” or a “lovin’ her.” They all could apply to me. Though I’m not sure Yankees understand family and honor like we do.

I probably deserve the dance I’ll do when the sun clears the horizon. Eye for an eye and all. Carpetbaggin’ sumbitch deserved every last ball I put in him. Wish’d I had Daddy’s LeMat to wipe the grin off his face with a shotgun blast, too.

But some Yankee’s probably got that, too. Took everything, eventually, didn’t they? Saber, gun, horses, farm, Mama’s honor, my…

I heard the lock clank.

“All right, I’m afraid it’s time. Ya know, I’d have shot that scoundrel, too, Missy. If it’s any consolation. I take no solace in hangin’ a twelve year old girl,” the glossy-eyed, red-nosed sergeant said.

When there are no more of their culturally established defenders around, some women grow up fast to protect themselves and their own. Especially in a mid-19th Century rural society. This 250-word story reflects such a young woman doing what she decided needed to be done in a family whose men were erased by war. It’s in response to that first sentence up there, the prompt for this week’s Thursday Threads feature from author Siobhan Muir.

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Spatter of Memories, Fusillade of Regrets

Caleb Downey heard the sound and turned to see Edwin Howard’s head flung backwards and his body sag to drape the ground like a sack of rags. He felt the spatter of Ed’s memories on his face.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Caleb said, knowing the men to either side of him in the Union line couldn’t hear him. Just like they never heard the .50 caliber slugs from Rebel Enfields come fetch them to Jesus. Wide-eyed, Caleb skittered back from the makeshift breastwork of a rotten hickory as more Reb bullets chopped it to tinder, let alone kindling.

“Where’re you going, Downey?” he heard Captain Mayfield yell, the flat of his sword spanking Caleb like his Pa would with a switch back in Indiana. “You get back to your position and hold this line with your squad.”

“Cap’n, I ain’t got no more squad. The last of ‘em, ‘cept for me, just lost the top of his head not three feet from my own.”

“You mean…”

“Yessir. All dead.”

“…you completely abandoned that position?”

“Only of the living, sir.”

“You get back up there and hold that post while I find some men to fill in the line.”

“I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

“What? Think of what you’re fighting for, boy. Think of the Union, Indiana, think of your family,” Mayfield said.

“I am. The feller to my right was my cousin Edwin. On the left was my brother, Charles. They never signed up for this, neither,” Caleb said.

Wrote this 250-word mini-story in response to the prompt of using the phrase “I didn’t sign up for this,” for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads feature. Thanks, Siobhan and judge Silver James. Now, on to tomorrow. Another chance to climb into my desk chair and attempt staying there.

Zero-Six-Ten at LZ-Boston

Their five-day mission complete, LRRP Team Cobra rested silently but alertly within the jungle 20 meters from the edge of a small open space where they were to be extracted from “Indian Country” back to their base. This was Landing Zone-Boston.

“Okay, it’s zero-six-ten. Now what?” Sgt. Eddie Jones whispered.

“Orders were to wait here at LZ-Boston. So…” Lt. Ben Sharper replied.

“And when was that supposed to be?”

“Zero-five-hundred,”

“Christ, over an hour ago. And here we sitting like a pimple on Cramer’s lily white ass. He must want me dead,” Jones said.

“C’mon, you’ve been in-country for what, eight months? They’re just late. It means nothing,”

“LT, call in and see where our birds are. I mean before this extraction becomes a dust-off,” Jones said.

“Shut up and relax. We’ve got good cover and security’s tight. Besides, why would they ignore us?“ Sharper said.

“Maybe ‘cause Captain has throbs for Jonesie’s moose, Bian? That’s no hooch girl. She fine. An educated babe, no doubt. And man, she puts out like a five-dollar piece, but only for Josesie,” radioman Bernie Cioppa said.

“That’s ‘cause, while Cramer’s got a lotta swing with Supply, can get her anything from nylons to napalm, he ain’t got a lotta swing in this department,” Jones said.

“Put that away, Jones. I doubt Cramer’s jealous of your Johnson. Chopper, radio,” Sharper said.

Cioppa stood, then dropped like a sack of camouflage fatigues, cut down by an AK-47 round.Two seconds later the first mortar round fell onto their position, lobbed in. by the North Vietnamese LLDB special forces squad that had been tipped to their LZ.

In a couple of minutes, it was over. Much as was the sex between Jones’ girl and Capt. Cramer, happening at that same moment at Team Cobra’s base.

“Your name, honey. Bian. I’m sure it means something beautiful as you are.” Cramer said.

“In English I it means ‘Woman with secrets,’ lover.” Then she laughed the laugh that used to remind Eddie Jones of bamboo wind chimes. Jones was a good listener. SO was Bian.

“Ooh, me likee,” Cramer whispered in her ear.

“Mmmm…tell me more, mon chéri.”

This is a goosed up first draft of a story I wrote in response to author Cara Michaels’ Menage Monday contest, where she sets up three prompts and the writer must write a piece of flash fiction of 250 words or less using all three prompts. This week’s contest presented that photo at the top the story, plus exact use of the phrases “It means nothing” or “it means something.” Being a wise-ass, I did both. Finally, Judge Teresa Eccles wanted a conspiracy theory to be part of the story. I’m not sure how I managed to use that, but I’m equally stumped about where this story set in the Vietnam War came from. But here it is.

From Mindanao to Macao

Source: Dreamtime

“You sure you saw something?” Captain Ben Giotto asked Navigator Frankie Keyes.

“Pretty sure. Clouds so low and the sea so dark and rough, though, I can’t be sure,” Keyes replied.

“Okay, start the fire. If there’s someone out there, maybe they’ll see the smoke,” Giotto ordered Lieutenant Lenny Shue, the third survivor of their crashed Navy transport.

“What if it’s Japs?” Shue asked.

“Then we get rescued by Japs. If we stay here, we’ll be dead in a week,” Giotto said.

“What am I supposed to start the fire with?” Shue, said. “Numbnuts there used our last flare two nights ago, like a fool, trying to signal some chain lightning or whatever. We got nothing to spark it.”

“You’re the engineer, Mr. Shue. Start engineering,” Giotto said.

“I saw it again!” Keyes shouted. “Sitting out there maybe six or seven miles.”

“You know, Numbnuts, you’ve done nothing but screw up since we left Manila,” Shue said. “Got us lost, then bounced by that flight of Zekes, and dumped us in the lost keys somewhere between Mindanao and Macao. You’d be more help to us dead than alive. At least we could eat you then.”

“Enough!” Giotto growled. “Keyes, make yourself useful anyplace away from Shue.”

* * *

Two days later, when Commander Walt Sunday’s submarine picked them up, he told Giotto and Shue, “We found the kid yesterday morning. Life vest deflated, but we saw the yellow on the dark water. Found the note about you fellas in his pocket.  Kinda ironic, wouldn’t you say? I guess he died just swimming out to fetch us to save you.”

“Yeah, I guess he did,” Shue whispered.

Here’s a 250-word response to author Cara Michael’s weekly #MenageMonday challenge. Have to use three prompts in a flash of 250 words or less. This week’s prompts were two phrases to be used in quotes (“like a fool” and “the lost keys”) and that photo above. I’ve added a few words here to my entry and would love to sit for a day to try turning it into something to the tune of 3,000 to 5,000 words. Maybe someday.

A Certain Light in the East

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

This was a Christmas unlike any Skyler Van ever experienced, so far removed from the small tree in the three-bedroom ranch back in Bethlehem, outside Albany. She had no memories with which to compare the way her boyfriend, Schuyler Hewson and his family made their season jolly.

But the Hewson’s celebration triggered one memory which sent Skyler to the back of their living room, with its red-flocked wallpaper, glittering eight-foot spruce and away from the huge hewn-stone fireplace with its mantle full of embroidered Christmas stockings. One of them read “Skyler.”

But she couldn’t stand there with the Hewsons next to the warming glow of their roaring Christmas fire. The pungent aroma of the burning kindling, dusted with a pinch of some sort of evergreen incense, the tang of which Schuyler said tasted of Christmas, tasted of something quite the opposite to her.

“You feeling okay, Sky?” her boyfriend asked, putting his arm around her shoulder.

“I think I might need some air, Schuyler. Maybe that Christmas punch of your grandmother’s was a little too potent for me after all.”

“Well, it’s been known to grow hair on your chest. But don’t tell my sister I just revealed her big secret,” he replied with a grin.

That grin was one of the things that drew Skyler to her now-boyfriend in the first place. That and his sense of humor and confidence.

They’d met a year before at the Starbucks on the Yale campus, each grabbing for the same cup when the barista called, “Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

Truth is, Schuyler never saw her there, since she barely came up to his armpit in height. And that’s where her arm came from–her left, his right. Each suffered from morning blindness and deafness until they had dipped into the mountain-grown elixir some Incan god gifted the Western Hemisphere.

She was an Asian girl in a knit cap and scarf. And she looked up at him and said, “I believe that’s my coffee”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He called my name and the drink I ordered.

That’s when the other barista walked over and called, ““Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

They each looked at the cup in their hands, then the one on the counter, then back at one another and then laughed.

“Here,” Schuyler said. “This is a coincidence for the ages.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The fact the names are the same is one thing, but who the heck orders the exact same oddball espresso drink as I do.”

“I guess I do. By the way I’m…”

“Schuyler, I’d imagine,” she said.

“And so are you, I gather. I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Well, since your eyes are way up there and your attention is even further up, I imagine I could be pretty hard to see little five-foot-nothing me down here,” Skyler said.

“You in a hurry? Anyone with our particular tastes in Starbucks drinks maybe should see what else they have in common,” the six-three Schuyler said.

“Not today, but I’ll be here tomorrow and I won’t have a class until 10:30. Maybe then.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to it, Skyler…?” The vacant name holder hung in the air by its interrogation mark.

“Van. I’m Skyler Van. And you’re…?” she said, hanging out her own opening.

“Hewson. Schuyler Hewson.”

And, starting the next day, their relationship built up to and including next Christmas Day. From eggnog lattes to strawberry smoothies, to Pumpkin Spice and back to eggnog. All with a little cinnamon.

Outside the Hewson house that evening, Schuyler followed his girlfriend. He found her leaning against a wall with her eyes closed and taking deep breaths.

“What’s the matter, Sky? You look so sad. I thought bringing you here to celebrate with us might make you happy, We do put on quite the ostentatious show, I grant you, but the spirit is universal,” Schuyler said.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful. Look, I’m even wearing Christmas lights, for Christ’s sake,” Skyler said, fingering the necklace of bulbs she wore.

“True, you make a very cute little tree. Much cuter than that behemoth in the living room.”

“Why thank you…I think,” Skyler said with a weak grin.

“Aw, man. You’re not feeling well, are you? I told Mom not to have the cook put so much pineapple, brown sugar, clove and ginger on the ham. Non-Hewsons might find that a little too much for their stomachs. Plus that damn punch. Ya see, that Manischewitz wine my grandfather slipped us when we were eight or ten was the gateway drug to this bacchanal…”

“No, Schuyler, I just felt….uncomfortable by the fire, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, the old man really builds that bad boy high, doesn’t he. I always wondered how the ell Santa was going to make it down the chimney with that thing going all night. Poor son a bitch would end up barbecued and…”

“Schuyler, stop,” Skyler cried, her voice cracking like the logs in the Hewson hearth.

“What? Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry, my family’s Christmas parties can be pretty overwhelm…”

“No, Schuyler. It’s not your family, nor the ham, nor the punch. It’s my family that’s putting this sickening taste in my mouth.”

“You mean the cultural difference? I thought Buddhists didn’t mind celebrating Christmas. Think Jesus was some kind of Bodhisattva or whatever,” Schuyler said.

“No, that’s not it, either. We even have a Christmas tree back home in Bethlehem. It’s another thing I don’t talk about, so…”

“C’mon, Sky. I thought we had a deal. If I did something to overstep my bounds with your Vietnamese culture or religion, you said you’d let me know so I could do better,” Schuyler said, pulling his girlfriend closer.

“I…I don’t know if I can this time, hon,” Skyler said. A tear clinging to the corner of her eye.

“Help me make it better, Sky. Really. Was it something I said?”

“Kinda.”

“Well, I’m sorry, whatever it was. But unless you tell me, I can make the same mistake twice. I never want to upset you like this again.”

“It really is the fire.”

“Like I said. The old man, he..”

“Not your father, Schuyler. My grandmother,” Skyler said with a sob.

“I don’t get it. Your grandmother died years ago back in Vietnam. Before your family came to the States, you told me.”

“It’s how she died. And what you said about the fire and Santa and the image was just too much. My family still can’t take the whole sensory panoply of a fireplace, a bonfire, even fireworks.”

“Oh, man. You mean she was killed by an explosion or in a fire during the Vietnam War?”

“No, Schuyler. She WAS the fire,” Skyler said, trembling in Schuyler’s arms.

“Was the fire? How does somebody… Oh! You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do. After my grandfather was killed in the war, she became even more devoutly Buddhist, especially when my dad came here to go to Cal. So he wasn’t there to help her until just before she and a few nuns sat in the street with their gasoline cans and…and…”

“Holy shit. Sky, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“Who could? Who really could understand how grief and faith and protest can intersect in such self-inflicted horror on a street corner in Hué?  Skyler said. She looked up into Schuyler’s eyes.

“No. I’m afraid I have no sense of that, I’m sorry. How can I help you, Sky?”

“Just hold me. It’s freakin’ cold out here. I don’t think I can go back in your living room for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the photos of that day and it made me very sick. Seeing your fire just triggered it again, Your parents think I’m some kind of Asian punk weirdo, Don’t they?”

“No, of course not. And screw them if they did. What do you say we go back inside to the kitchen and have something to drink to help wash that taste out of your mouth? No punch. Maybe I can make an eggnog latte?” Schuyler said with a grin.

“Okay. But how about a strawberry smoothie? Christmas is over anyway. And can you come to Albany for New Year’s? I think this is going to be Năm của kẻ si tình,” Skyler said and hugged her boyfriend close.

“What’s that mean, said the willing-to-learn-Vietnamese half-Jewish boy,” Schuyler said as they headed toward the back door.

“Year of the Love Birds. I love you, Schuyler.”

“And ‘Anh yêu em,’ Sky. Told you I was willing.”

After a holiday-induced break and creative malaise, I’ve jumped back into responding to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses feature. This past week’s theme was the sense of Taste. One of the photo prompts was of a forlorn young Asian girl in a knit hat and a light-bulb necklace, another of a pink drink, and the final of something aflame in the middle of a street. Not sure I did Taste all that much justice and my use of the pink drink is weak, but the other two photos evoked this story of two kids from different cultures – on many levels – whose love seems like the real deal.

Taps

Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash

“Why do you always do that, Great-grandpa Bill?” Ginny Benson asked

“Do what, Ginny?” replied old Bill Frye.

“Take off your glasses and tap them on the table when you look out that window?”

“Do I do that? Hmmm…I guess I do. Didn’t even notice the tapping. Here, let me put them back on so I see your pretty face,” Bill said with a smile.

“So why do you do that? And always when you look out the window on the ocean side of the house,” Ginny said.

“My, you do notice a lot for someone so young. Just the ocean side, you say?”

“Yep. Hardly ever when you look out the road side of your house.”

“Hmmm…maybe because I’ve seen the ocean long enough in my life that I know what she looks like? Don’t even need my glasses,” old Bill said.

“Uh huh. But you always tell me how the ocean’s a living thing, changing every second and you have to keep your eyes on it. So why…?”

“My, my, but you’re a tight listener, Ginny. With a memory like your great-grandmother’s, God rest her sweet soul. And you favor her more each and every day.”

“Okay. But you still didn’t answer my question. Why do you take them off and tap them on your table like that,” Ginny said as she sat at the window seat next to Bill.

“…and in your stubborn lines of inquiry, I might add.”

“I guess.”

“So let’s see, why do I take off my glasses when I look out at the ocean? Well, like I said, I was a seaman for more than sixty years, even if you’ve only ever seen me live on shore. I’ve probably spent more time at sea than ashore.”

“Mommy and Grandma say they’ve seen more of you since Great-grandma June died than they ever did.”

“Yeah, well, making up for lost time, I guess. And I regret that loss. That’s what old seamen do, Ginny. We sit around, stare out windows and listen to the clock tick as we look back, remember how lucky we’ve been and then regret,” Bill said, looking out the window again.

“Regret? You’ve lived a long time, made a successful career in commercial fishing for six decades. You even survived Pearl Harbor, Grandpa told me,” Ginny said, her voice rising.

“He did, did he? What’d he tell you?” Bill’s eyes narrowed.

“He said you escaped from a ship after it was torpedoed by the Japanese. He told me it capsized and you got off. But he told me that’s all he knew. Even Grandma doesn’t know what happened.”

“I survived, honey, when a lot of other men didn’t. Isn’t that enough to know?”

“I suppose. But you still didn’t answer my questions.”

“How old are you now, Ginny?”

“Thirteen. Fourteen in two weeks.”

“My you’re growing up so fast. So bright, so mature for your young age. You know what I was doing when I was about your age?”

“I don’t know. Paper route?”

“At fifteen I was working on my uncle Frank’s boat off Port Orford. I hauled in Dungeness crab for him every day until I turned 17, when I decided I’d seen enough of crabs and the Oregon coast. Told myself I never wanted to see no crab pots or fishing nets again. I wanted to see what the rest of the world looked like from the deck of a real vessel. So I joined the Navy.”

“Still waiting on tapping your glasses, Grampy Bill.”

“I admire your persistence, Ginny. Must’ve gotten that from me. So I signed up and they sent me to basic training and then to a ship called the USS Oklahoma, which was moored in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. I never seen any place so beautiful in my life. It was a sweet time, let me tell you. All that warm sunshine, the sweet smell of hibiscus and Island girls. After standing in cold water and smelling of crab and whiting for two years, this was heaven,” Bill said, a softer tone to his voice. 

“I met a girl there named Missy Kochiyama. This is before I met your Great-grandmother. Japanese-American girl, born in Hawaii. Nisei they called kids whose folks had come from Japan. For whatever reason, we hit it right off when a buddy of mine asked me to tag along to meet some girls he knew. After that, whenever I got shore leave, which happened more times than you might think, we’d meet up and have us a sweet time. We were real close.”

“Did you love her?”

“Yep, honey, I did. And she loved me, too. I even gave her my Mom’s watch, which your great-great-grandma gifted to me before she passed. And she gave me a watch with Japanese characters that her dad used as a student in Kyoto. We told each other that our watches were each other’s beating hearts. And whenever we wished we could be near one another, to just put the watch to our ear and there the other would be.”

“That’s so sweet! So how’s this fit into…”

“Oh, yeah. Well, the Oklahoma was one of the biggest and best battleships in the fleet. And to stay that way, we trained and drilled and had inspections to keep us sharp. In fact, we were preparing to have an inspection on Monday, December eighth, so we had a lot of our doors and hatches wide open when the Japs hit us. Three torpedoes, bang-bang-bang, in our port side right off.” 

“That must have been so frightening, Grampy Bill!”

“That was the second most frightening thing ever happened to me, Ginny. Water began pouring in from the holes those fish made and with all those hatches open, the Okie took on water faster than anyone could close and dog them. The ship began to list to port and a lot of boys found themselves trapped before they could get above decks. Then five more fish hit her and the Okie really began sinking and over she went.”

“Oh my God!”

“Me and a bunch of fellas were trapped in a compartment underneath the No. 4 gun turret, which, when she went keel-over-teakettle, was then underwater. We were stuck in there for 25 hours, with no power, thinning air, and water starting to come over my feet like on that old trawler of my uncle’s,” Bill said.

Ginny leaned forward and grasped her great-grandfather’s crooked hands.

“So what did you do? What happened?” she said.

“We all took turns banging on the bulkhead above us with a wrench. Clang-clang, clang-clang! Like a horrible heartbeat. It was an awful racket and with everyone’s nerves shot, it became almost too much to bear. We could hear the same thing going on in the Number 4 Radio Room next to us. Some of the guys were ready to die after eighteen hours of this stuff. I knew exactly how long we were locked in that box because I kept looking Missy’s dad’s watch. When one of the guys saw the Japanese figures on its face, he tried grabbing it from me and I dropped it into the water, which was rising higher all the time. I found it and put back in my pocket. The air pressure getting tighter and the continuous clanging made my ears hurt so bad. I was pretty sure I was gonna be deaf before I was gonna be dead.”

“Then what happened, Great-grandpa?”

“Other sailors and civilian workers from the Navy Yard brought in air compressors, pumps, chipping tools and torches alongside the part of our hull still above water. We had no idea this was going on, of course. It wasn’t until we heard the first sounds of an air hammer a full day after the attack. One of the guys in Number 4 Radio Room, on his way out, told a fella from the Navy Yard we were still alive on the other side of the bulkhead. He banged on the steel and yelled to tell us he was gonna get us out.”

“And he did. Wow!” 

“It wasn’t that simple, Ginny. See, we had water rising and if they just cut a hole in that bulkhead, willy-nilly, all the air that was in our compartment would blow out that hole and water would take its place. We knew this because as soon as we saw a drill bit come through the wall, we could hear the hiss of the air going out and watch the water begin coming in. So four of us went under the water and horsed the hatch shut. That gave us a chance, I guess. But it wasn’t going to be that simple.”

“What do you mean?”

“The water was still rising as the construction crew started at the bulkhead with an air hammer. I heard later that when they tried cutting through another place on the ship with an acetylene torch it sucked the air right out of the compartment. The water rushed in and all those fellas died on the spot. So with the water rising in our compartment and that air hammer gnawing away at the bulkhead, it was a race to see if we’d get out in time, if at all. And now I can tell you what was the most scared I’ve ever been. Right there.”

“I…I can’t imagine, Grampy Bill.”

“I hope you never try, Ginny. After about an hour of this stuff, the big fella who was hammering into the wall had finished the third side of a square he was cutting for us. But time was running out for him, too. Water was up to his knees and rising as fast as it was for us. We were ready to tear into that slab of steel with our fingers by then. This fella knew none of us had too long left, so he says, ‘Look out for your hands, boys,’ and he takes a sledgehammer and begins wanging away at that steel. He bent it back toward us until there was this triangular space we could shimmy through. We got out of that ship as fast as we could, let me tell you. But found out later more than 400 of our shipmates weren’t so lucky. That’ll gnaw on you for a long time, Ginny.”

“What a story! So when you look out at the ocean you take your glasses off and tap them like those wrenches and hammers and stuff you heard that day?” Ginny said.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Bill sighed.

Just as she was about to get up, Ginny asked, “Whatever happened to that girl, Missy, Grampy?”

“I never saw her again. Even went down to where they kept all the bigshot Japanese residents. Like those internment camps they had back on the mainland. She wasn’t there either.”

“How sad. Well, thank you Grampy Bill. I’m honored you shared that story with me.” Ginny kissed Bill’s forehead.

“You’re welcome, honey. But let’s just keep it between us, okay? Our secret. Just some of those things old men think about when our real last day grows near.” Bill gave Ginny a wink.

“You bet. Love you, Grampy Bill.”

“Love you, Ginny.”

As she left the room, Bill stared out at the ocean again and sighed. 

“Couldn’t tell her. Just couldn’t,” he whispered to himself.

Once more he felt for the old tarnished watch in his breast pocket, its hands pointing to about 8:30 AM, when the salt water stopped it on December 9, 1941. That was two days after Missy Kochiyama took her father’s car out to Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning in hope of waving to young Billy Frye, when he said he would be above deck.

With his fingers touching the old watch, old Bill gazed toward the southwest, removed his glasses and tapped heartbeats on the table with them as the sun set in the Pacific behind Neahkahnie Point on the Oregon coast.

Another first-and-a-half draft based on Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses project. This week’s theme was the Sense of Sound. I was presented with three photos for inspiration: one showed an old man staring into the camera, a pair of eyeglasses, and, finally, a photo of the ocean at sunset . The fact that today is the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed me in that direction. And another prompt I read today suggested I try writing a story all in dialogue. I came close, but I couldn’t finish it the way I wanted that way…today..

Just A Few Appropriate Remarks

It was a sunny and breezy day, I’m told, in that place where the headliner gave a performance of Springsteenian length, full of bombast worthy of a king…or Freddie and Queen. Then that other speaker, who’d taken the train up from points south, rose with a folded piece of paper in his hand, bareheaded, mournful, haggard and humbled by the venue, the times, the occasion and its raison d’être. And while the crowd still buzzed from the performance by first name on the marquee’s performance, the tall man presented his 271—word “appropriate remarks” in his scratchy voice, its accent many of the intelligentsia derided, while it was perfectly understood by those from the Kentucky hills and the Illinois prairie. And when he finished, he did not hear the thunder of applause, for the sky was clear, even of 21-gun cannonades. Nor did he hear the brassy fanfare of approbation, the wind only enough to move a lady’s hair across her brow. Instead, came an awkward silence and then a pitter-patter of hands reminiscent of raindrops on a gravestone. But it was a day of remembrance and there were gravestones by the thousands, most with names now long-forgotten. Not many have forgotten the first few words those remarks, nor the gist of the final ones. They are why a child learns that a score is an old word for 20. And why, deep down inside, we believe that this grand experiment of ours, this “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That is our hope. They define us. Amen.

Never Again

Passchendaele

They say it rained fire and steel
for days at the Marne,
where forests melted from your sight
if you were crazy enough to lift
your head above the trench line.
For to do so was to risk a messy death.

History tells me some British soldiers,
Tommies they were called, sunk without
hope of rescue into murderous mud holes
during the forever rain of Passchendaele. Or,
if they were lucky, one of their mates would
shoot them first before they went under.

You know, of course, while generals pondered
their strategies of bleeding out
the other side of its youth over months
of shelling, or deciding when to send more
into the Hindenburg Line meant grinder,
thousands still lost limbs, minds and lives.

I know for a fact that flyers who climbed
skyward in crates of wood and canvas,
did so without parachutes. To survive
another day was less important than trying
to save a burning airplane, which,
they were told, had more value than they did.

This happened only a century ago,
after which most who ever felt the whiz
of bullets pass their faces, smelled the gas
that killed and the stench of the killed,
who saw friends turned to pulp
before their eyes, said “Never again.”

They said such a war was too terrible
to repeat for King and Country, for ideology,
for gains on a balance sheet or a map.
It wasn’t worth repeating that horror. Many tried.
All failed. Yet they called it The Great War.
But they aren’t, not even if you “win.”

They’re Hell.

I’m pretty sick right now. Flu, depression, and a mind that never stops yet can’t bring forth anything with meaning, even to myself. Yet, as a student of history, I felt moved today to write something about the end of the First World War, where mankind saw death and carnage on a super-industrial scale. I wish I could write more, about how the war bled out nations on so many scales. Who it Ended nations. How it began others. But, ultimately, war is about people. The men and women who served, fought and died in Belgium, France, Italy, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere deserve better than they’re getting. It’s been one hundred years since the War to End All Wars ended and some of us don’t know, don’t care or don’t care to know or do anything about it. His loss.

Huzzah for Private Hutchinson

In his patched and soot-stained tent, Colonel Elihu Leslie, his arm draped over his eyes, heard the single muffled drum outside in the twilight.

“Oh, Lord, already?” he said, for he knew what was about to occur. Colonel Leslie arose from his cot, bumping into his field desk where the letter to his wife lay. He pulled up his braces, buttoned on his tunic and stepped outside just as the seven soldiers and a lieutenant were about to march past. He raised his hand and the twenty-two-year-old lieutenant called “Halt!”

“Good morning, sir,” said the pink-cheeked lieutenant, who a year before had clerked at his father’s mercantile in Columbus, Georgia. “Firing party ready to execute your command, Sir.”

Colonel Leslie returned the young officer’s salute and looked at the single soldier, his arms bound and his hands tied in front of his waist, standing between the two files of soldiers with rifles. In the gathering light, Leslie could see the young soldier’s eyes darting right and left, his entire body shaking as if they were back in the snow at Fredericksburg last December.

With a look of pity in his eyes, Colonel Leslie approached the man.

“Soldier, you do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” Colonel Leslie said.

“‘Cause I left my sentry post two nights ago, sir? But nothing bad happened. No Yankees or spies came through. I just needed some coffee to shake off the cold and keep me awake, sir. We been marching for three days straight an’ I ain’t slept since…”

“None of us have, son. But your comrades all managed to stay awake.”

“Yessir. But do that mean I have to die? I been with this army since the bells rang in Atlanta calling us all to defend Georgia and the Confederate states. Why do I have to die this way, sir? I’m a decent soldier,” the condemned man said.

“Son we do this because we have to. Military discipline and all that. But I feel you’re missing the point of this procedure. You shouldn’t look at this as punishment, but as your sacred duty,” the Colonel said in a flat tone.

“Sir, I don’t rightly understand. How’s me gettin’ shot by my own boys line up with my duty?”

“Private, the execution of deserters, and you are by definition a deserter, has been a tenet of strong military discipline since the time of Joshua, the time of the great Assyrian kings, why even the great legions of Rome knew that skirting their assigned duties was punishable by death,” the Colonel said, his voice rising and a crowd of soldiers beginning to mill around the firing party.

“Sir, I don’t know about no Legions from Rome, just a couple of fellers from elsewhere in Floyd County. The Benteen brothers. And I still don’t think I should be shot,” the soldier said.

Leslie bowed his head and smoothed his mustache with his fingers. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then put his hand on the condemned soldier’s shoulder.

“I see your point son, but let me explain some more about what you’ll be accomplishing today. You will not be dying because you left your post, leaving a section of our line without guard. No, you will be going to our Creator as a sign of your fealty to our Cause, protecting your home and family, since all these men here you’ll be leaving behind will see your demise and understand that such a fate awaits them, should they desert their comrades. That is a noble thing, son,” Leslie said.

“Really, sir?” the soldier said, his shoulders straightening and their shaking subsiding.

“Brave soldier, you will be laying down your life for your comrades, as much as if you fell with them in battle. Your name will be spoken of as the impetus of their never shirking their orders, never challenging the authority of their officers, nay, never giving an inch in retreat unless so ordered. Son, if I could, I would give you a medal for this brave act you’re about to commit,” Leslie said as he placed his hand on the soldier’s now-steady shoulder.

“I think I understand now, sir. I’m gonna die so my friends will be better soldiers, makin’ them better able to protect our state and country from the Yankee invaders.”

“Exactly, Private, Private, uh…”

“Hutchinson, sir. Ezra Hutch…”

“Private Hutchinson. Young warrior, I cannot salute you, but allow me to shake your hand, wish you Godspeed and send you on your way to obey your final orders,” the Colonel said.

“Yessir. Thank you, sir,” Hutchinson said, his bound hands clutching the Colonel’s hand. He squared his shoulders and stared straight ahead.

“Let’s get this over with, boys,” he said.

“Firing party, shoulder arms. Forward march,” the Lieutenant ordered. The small group marched down the remaining row of tents and through a treeline to a field outside of camp. About a hundred other soldiers who had witnessed Leslie and Hutchinson’s exchange followed in ranks as if marching on parade.

Leslie watched them until the last soldier disappeared behind the trees, then he reentered his tent and stared at the letter to his wife he had almost finished. He dipped his pen into his inkwell and scratched out a final sentence and signed it, “Your loving and devoted husband, Elihu.”

He unholstered the Navy Colt he had used during his days on the prairie with the 2nd US Cavalry before the war and sat on his cot. He thought of all the men he had ordered into the hail of steel and lead at battles for the past year and a half. Thought of his son, killed at Chancellorsville, who had thrilled at the chance to serve with his father, leading other young Georgians in battle against the Federals. He recalled his brother Josiah falling at his side at Gettysburg. He remembered a few of the faces and names, but the rest had become a blur, and that vexed him sorely for the past three weeks.

Leslie heard the volley of six Enfield rifles crack through the trees. There followed the cheers of one hundred men who had witnessed Private Ezra Hutchinson’s passing into the oblivion of a bastardized heroism of the Colonel’s own devise.

As the cheers echoed and faded, he carried out the last of the executions he’d ordered for that day, in that camp, in a war he never wanted to fight. In light of all his decisions, he knew his joining Private Hutchinson in honorable dishonor was an order he could never disobey.

Man, this was a long time coming. First draft, but it gives me a feeling of accomplishment I didn’t think I’d feel for some time. In any revision, I’m not sure if it would get bigger into a more full short story or pruned down into official flash fiction (1000 words or less) territory. I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve written us a story that feels like something different…and that’s a good thing. Be safe out there, erstwhile CSA friends!